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The long, two-week wait is over, and it’s finally time for New England Patriots fans to enjoy some playoff football of their own. On the schedule this week is a rematch with the AFC South champion Houston Texans, whom the Patriots routed 42-14 back on December 10th. Don’t expect a repeat of that blowout however. Houston is still one of the best teams in the AFC, and beating good teams twice in one year is hard enough, never mind doing so decisively.
Many fans and media members are cautiously comparing this game to the playoff game vs. the New York Jets in 2010. Back then, the Patriots lost at home following a bye week, despite having beaten the Jets 45-3 in their previous meeting. As tempting as it may be fall into that mentality, there are a few reasons to believe this is a completely different scenario.
First and foremost, this is a better Patriots team than the one they fielded in 2010. Back then, both sides of the ball had young players playing key positions, and even the leaders were in their early years as captains. CB Devin McCourty, LB Brandon Spikes, and TE’s Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were all in their rookie seasons, and all four are now major components on this team. Jerod Mayo has matured as a leader, and the offense has evolved into a more well rounded philosophy that can run or pass with equal efficiency.
All that said, Houston still presents some major challenges, and in many ways played much better than the 42-14 score in week 14 would indicate.
*Numbers represent regular season totals and ranks.
|Record||12-4 (1st in AFCE)||12-4 (1st in AFCS)|
|Points/G||34.8 (1st)||26.0 (8th)|
|Points All./G||20.7 (T-9th)||20.7 (T-9th)|
|Rush Yds/G||136.5 (7th)||132.7 (8th)|
|Rush Yds All./G||101.9 (9th)||97.5 (7th)|
|Pass Yds/G||291.4 (4th)||239.4 (11th)|
|Pass Yds All./G||271.4 (29th)||225.8 (16th)|
|Takeaways||41 (2nd)||29 (9th)|
|Giveaways||16 (T-2nd)||17 (6th)|
|TO Diff.||25 (1st)||12 (7th)|
On the surface, it would seem like Tom Brady and the offense have this Texans defense figured out. Scoring 42 points is nothing to sneeze at, and it seemed it was 21-0 before anyone knew what was happening. Brady has historically done well against Wade Phillips’ defenses too, his superior blitz reads allowing him to take advantage of Phillips’ aggressive schemes.
Despite the lopsided score, there was a long stretch in that game where the Patriots offense stalled. Following the 21-0 lead, Houston forced four straight punts (including a trio of three-and-outs), and had the Patriots 3rd and 10 before a long TD pass to Donte Stallworth (now on IR) essentially put the game away. Defensive lineman JJ Watt led the charge during that stretch. Despite not recording a sack, he was constantly harassing Brady, hitting him three times and just generally making life miserable for the QB. If he brings his game up another level, he could single-handedly stall the Patriots offense.
CB Johnathan Joseph should also be a little more effective in this game. December 10th marked his first game back from injury, and though he wasn’t burned often, he was still shaking off some rust. When he’s healthy, he’s the Texans top corner, and could go a long way to shutting down Brandon Lloyd on the outside.
But the biggest story on this side of the ball is the return of Gronkowski. The TE was still recovering from a broken arm in the last Houston game, but was able to get in some action against Miami in week 17 to get himself ready for the playoffs. More than anyone on the Patriots offense, Gronkowski provides matchup problems, is able to create mismatches in the passing game and bowl people over in the running game. Everyone should expect Houston to play a better all around defensive game, but the return of Gronk will add a major wrinkle to their gameplan.
For as many positive signs you could take out of the Texans’ defensive performance last game, there really weren’t many good things done by their offense. WR Andre Johnson produced his usual numbers (8 catches for 95 yards) but he was just about the only one. The basic theme of the Texans’ offense is run to set up the pass, and outside of a few good runs early, HB Arian Foster was held in check for the whole game. This took away QB Matt Schaub’s greatest weapon, playaction, which led to an abysmal 3rd down conversion rate (4 for 14).
What will be interesting to watch is whether the Texans stick with that gameplan, trying to recreate what has worked for them most of the season. This feeds right into the strength of the Patriots defense, which has been fairly stout against the run all year. Houston could try to mix things up, but head coach Gary Kubiak is not known for his overly flexible gameplanning. If they stick to their guns, Arian Foster will need to have a much more effective game or their offense may fail again.
Defensively, the Patriots should be able to field their preferred starting secondary for the first time in three weeks. Cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard, both of whom missed the regular season finale, have been practicing all week and are expected to play. This allows McCourty to return to the free safety role, where it’s easier for him to coordinate the unit. This has the trickle down effect of letting Belichick get more aggressive up front, knowing the back end has better coverage throughout. Getting after Schaub will be important, as he hasn’t shown tremendous resiliency when facing consistent pressure.
– The Patriots are listing over 20 players on their injury report this week. While a lot of this is the typical gamesmanship of Belichick versus the league office, this could be seen as both a positive and negative sign. You never like seeing that many guys banged up, but considering they’re all practicing and none have been placed on IR, this is one of the healthiest Patriots playoff teams in years.
– In the December matchup, the Patriots’ energy level seemed to be elevated by the perceived lack of respect they were getting compared to the Texans. It will be interesting to see if they can match that same intensity following their decisive victory, as well as whether the Texans can pull some extra motivation out of that same scenario.
– A victory on Sunday will give Tom Brady 17 in his playoff career, passing Joe Montana for tops on the all time list.
This should be a great football game, and the only thing anyone can say with certainty is the Patriots won’t be winning by 28 points again. But the Patriots have too many weapons now with the return of Gronkowski to be held in check for an entire game. Between that, health, and home field advantage, New England should be able to power through to the AFC Championship Game.
Patriots 31, Texans 24